The new documentary Farmsteaders delves into the past, present, and future of dairy farming in the United States. Over a span of five years, Director Shaena Mallett follows Nick and Celeste Nolan and their four children as they produce milk and cheese in rural Ohio.
Farmsteaders reflects the challenges and realities small scale producers confront on a daily basis, highlighting the fine balance between prosperity and failure. “The dairy industry is complicated—fraught with animal welfare issues, environmental issues—and can just be downright brutal on the people working hard to keep the lights on,” Mallett tells Food Tank. “We are in a time of climate crisis, and we need to learn from the folks who are thinking forward by looking back at traditional methods of animal grazing and land stewardship. The Nolans work hard to keep their cows on grass, staying mindful that the health of the soil and the health of the animals is everything”.
Shaena Mallett wants the Nolan’s story to bring reflection and reaction from viewers. “When you buy from local farmers, you are directly supporting people. It’s an opportunity to redirect money from CEOs of major food conglomerates and instead support that family farm down the road,” Mallet tells Food Tank. While large-scale industrial farming continues to push small scale producers to the fringes, Mallet hopes the film provides solutions. “Every time we buy groceries, we have the opportunity to vote with our dollar to support hard-working folks who are growing and raising food that is ethically sound and nourishing.”
Mallett says working with the Nolans for over half a decade offered her incredible and touching lessons. “You’re able to see the same struggles repeat themselves, the slow and subtle shifts in the faces of the people and the land, the children grow, and their roles shift from the older kids to the younger ones,” Mallet explains.
“It was difficult and wonderful to be completely immersed, just me and a camera,” Mallett tells Food Tank. “The kids would wake me up at 5 AM by piling on top of me on the couch. The cows would gather around me in the field to try and figure out what that funny looking black box was—and try to lick the camera lens.”
Although it is her first full-length film, Mallett dove right into the world of documentary film making. “I essentially learned the craft of filmmaking through the experience in the first couple of years. It felt risky to tell the story the way I wanted to—slow and rhythmic, quiet, observational, poetic—and I met some real resistance from others in the process,” Mallett tells Food Tank. “I’ve learned that it’s not for everyone—nothing ever is—but some folks find that approach incredibly refreshing and resonant.”
Mallett grew up on a small family farm in Appalachia and notes her connection to the Nolans. “We grew and raised almost everything we ate when I was young,” explains Mallett. “As the years passed, I watched the farms close their doors and be forced to sell—either because the farmers grew old and no one wanted to take over, or because the pressures stemming from corporate agriculture were just too great for the small family farms to keep up with... It was devastating.”
Yet Mallet stayed deeply connected to the land around her and began to create stories that deal with themes of nature, food, and home. “It was important to me for the land to be a real presence in the final piece,” Mallett continues. “The Nolans rely on the land for everything they do, just as generations of families have done on the same piece of land for many thousands of years. Even when things feel scattered or unknown, the land holds it all together.”
Mallet hopes the film connects viewers to the realities of farming and the land around them. “It was really a gift to bear witness to everything the Nolans went through in those years. That’s really a gift of documentary work—it allows an opportunity to just be with people, to listen and to see what they are experiencing and who they are, just [to] be there to hold the space and help translate that experience for others who can relate to the universal human experience,” Mallett tells Food Tank.
The film Farmsteaders premiered on Sept. 2 as part of 32nd season of the POV series on PBS, the longest-running indie documentary showcase in the USA.
Photos courtesy of Shaena Mallett.